I just read a great article that got me to thinking about food and why I’m in Italy eating and writing about it. Are Gastrocrats Bad News for True Food Lovers? raises the question of glorious excess, which happened to dovetail with my research on Tuscan restaurant Arnolfo, one of those places that serves a sort of “art” food, with arrangements that please the eye, cost a bundle, and are difficult to eat—being all stacked and arranged upon shimmering streams of sauce ejaculated from squeeze bottles in artistic, flowing ribbons of colors known and unknown in the food world. In fact, Arnolfo’s website reflects this whole paradigm perfectly, slow loading eye candy obfuscates any information layer that may be lurking within.
The real reason I like eating in Italy is the social contract and slick power transfer you get when you eat here. I know this is a bad analogy to use when speaking to Americans, where “conservatives” have obliterated any signs of the social contract so they and their sheepish “enemies” the “liberals” can stuff their pockets with money from corporations, so I’ll explain.
When you go to a restaurant in Italy run by a lifelong “cook” rather than “chef” you sit at a table and the waiter comes over and if you’re smart you will leave your desire to control everything at the door—becoming totally, sheepishly subservient. You don’t want to demand item 6 and item 9 on the menu, you want the food they want to cook for you; food that will make you very, very happy. That’s part of the contract. “If you don’t feed me the stuff that’s made its way to the back of the refrigerator because nobody wanted it and instead feed me the food that you know will make me happy because it’s fresh and in season (and you know I’m here because I love the attention you pay to the details of cooking it), then I will trust to you implicitly so that you may be free to work to the best of your abilities to feed me. And then I will come back another day for more.
So you might ask the waiter what’s good, or what’s fresh, or what the pensioners in the corner rave about.
And most of the time you will get the very best food the restaurant has to offer.
And when it comes, there is a power shift. The waiter doesn’t make theater out of opening the cork of the wine bottle he’s going to keep from you so he can divvy it up in proportion to his own desires. He plops the open bottle on the table. You can do what you want with it. He has given control to you.
And the food, when it comes, will be laid out on a plate in a manner that one would like in order that it could be eaten efficiently. Which you do. With pleasure. There is nobody in the kitchen who has a degree in architecture—and also happened to minor in pick-up-sticks—who is going to gather all the separate elements up in his greasy fingers while they get cold and stack them up so they defy the edge of the knife and tumble willy-nilly upon the surface of the plate (if you’re lucky).
Odd, isn’t it, that in this post-industrial age, we still fall into the trap of thinking more is better. If a 78 piece orchestra sounds fantastic, then why doesn’t anyone put together a 2000 piece one?
Because, if you must know, there aren’t that many different notes that can be played. And far fewer that can be understood at any single moment.
And that’s the thing in a nutshell, isn’t it? What is better than a perfect slice of lamb from a sheep who had a happy life grazing amongst nature’s incredible variety of tasty things it loved to eat? It doesn’t need a thousand spices. It doesn’t need to be an island in a streamlet of liquefied goat intestine. It needs a compassionate and skillful cook.
Otherwise, the lamb has given its life for nothing.